Sweet Adelines Back in Brum

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Sweet Adelines were back in Birmingham at the weekend for the second year running for their annual convention at Symphony Hall. I commented last year about how the region’s healthy state is clearly audible in the quality of the performances they are producing, but this year’s contests were a clear step up from there.

The quartet contest was hotly contested, with a strong field of well-established quartets and experienced quartet singers dominating the top ten places. Gold medallists Echo, for example, were only in their second year as a quartet, but have the experience of two previous gold medallists within the line-up, while the second and third place quartets, Miss-Demeanour and Fortuity are the 2010 and 2011 LABBS champions respectively.

The region has been growing in strength for some years now, since Eu4ia placed 12th at International in 2005, and seeing Finesse break into the International top ten last year has lent a new level of confidence all round. This spirit was helped this weekend by the presence of SALT, International champions from 2007 who were the second Swedish quartet to demonstrate that the countries of the barbershop diaspora could not only equal the achievements of the artform’s continent of origin, but could beat them at their own game. And the confidence was affirmed by the chorus contest results which saw all five of the medallist groups achieve scores over 600 points.

For those involved in less habitually competitive genres, all this focus on contest achievement can seem alien and even off-putting. It can feel like a way to drive a wedge between groups that should be friends. But this is not at all how it plays out with barbershop audiences. As I commented in Chapter 3 of my book on the genre, barbershop audiences exert a strong sense of ownership over their heros and heroines. Competition serves to identify which ensembles all the others should most aspire to be like. There are private disappointments for those who placed lower than they hoped, but that doesn’t prevent them feeling genuinely proud of their co-competitors who achieved the placings.

This played out very clearly in the weekend’s biggest story, which was the small chorus Viva A Cappella sweeping from 9th place last year to win chorus gold. This was a surprise result in more than just the dimension of previous track record. Sweet Adeline regional awards tend to build in the assumption that bigger is better, with specific awards available for smaller and mid-sized choruses as well as the overall winner. It is not uncommon for one of the larger mid-sized groups to be found in the overall medals (Heartbeat have done this for several consecutive years now), but it is the monster choruses that tend to prevail, and this expectation is built into the system.

So, for a small chorus to shoot to the top gave an incredible buzz for all kinds of reasons. There’s the good old British sport of cheering for the underdog* – and this was a particularly sweet experience in the light of the chorus’s rather heavily penalised material last year based on Toronto Northern Light’s ‘It’s Impossible’ parody that celebrates the triumph of the little guy over the giant. The performance itself, especially their ballad, was being talked about a lot as one of the most enjoyed well before the results came out, so their placing gave a lot of people a stronger faith in the integrity of the judging system and its fitness to choose barbershop’s heros.

But the thing you heard time and again around in the post-contest conversations was people from small choruses saying how much it had given them heart. That it was worth their efforts; that it wasn’t futile competing in the same events as the huge choruses. It was a real moment of ignition for some: there was that light in the eye, the excitement of getting back at it, and all driven by that sense of identification - ‘they’re like me, and I want to be like them’.

* as opposed to the ‘undergod’ which was the result of my first attempt to type this.

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